Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2008 Issue

The Government Faces Off Against a Collector for a Declaration of Independence

Wiscasset

Turn of the Century Wiscasset, from the period when the Declaration was in the home of Town Clerk Sol Holbrook.


By Michael Stillman

Another case involving "lost" public documents is playing out in a Virginia court, the type of case we both hate to see and expect to see more of in the days ahead. It pits a public authority against an innocent collector, the latter standing to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of a purchase made in good faith. There must be a better way.

The item is a copy of the Declaration of Independence, not the first printing, but a very early one, from 1776. It was printed in Salem, Massachusetts, and apparently went to the Town of Pownalborough in what was then northern Massachusetts. The town is today known as Wiscasset and what was then northern Massachusetts is now known as Maine. Somewhere along the way, as Massachusetts lost Pownalborough and Pownalborough lost its name, Wiscasset lost its copy of the Declaration of Independence.

Today it is in the possession of Richard L. Adams of Virginia. Obviously, he believes he is the owner. He would not have paid $475,000 to borrow it for a few months. Exactly what happened to it between 1776 and 2008 is not certain, but here is what appears to have occurred over the last hundred years or so. It apparently was held by Sol Holbrook, a watchmaker by trade who was Wiscasset's Town Clerk from 1886-1929. It may sound odd, even questionable, that a town clerk would have had important public papers in his home, but those of us who have lived in small town New England will not be surprised at all. These towns would have had few, if any, public facilities, and no place to store the reams of public papers that accumulated over a century and a half. The one person who would be most likely to ever need any of these records would be the Town Clerk, so it is quite natural that they would end up in his house. And, while there might be some call for town minutes or the like from the past decade or so, the need to access records from the distant past would be negligible if not totally nonexistent. Most likely, the records, which included this Declaration of Independence, made their way to Holbrook's attic quite early in his town clerking career, and never saw the light of day again.

After Holbrook died, no one came to reclaim the records for the town. It is likely after all of those years no one knew what he had, and no one cared. So the records ended up in the attic of Holbrook's daughter, Anna Plumstead. It's doubtful either she or her father ever had any idea there was something valuable in there. When she died in 1994, her belongings were put up for auction, and that was when it became clear there was something of value. At that 1995 estate auction, it sold for $77,000. Since then, it has gone through a couple of private sales, at one time being held by London bookseller Simon Finch, before making its way to Adams. Now, Adams wants to sell it, and the State of Maine, which somehow missed the auction in Maine in which it was sold, has hightailed it down to Virginia to seize the copy.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:<br>Art & Storytelling: Photographs<br>& Photobooks</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Marcus A. Root, "<i>General Tom Thumb</i>" with parents, daguerreotype, circa 1846. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> William Saunders, <i>Sketches of Chinese Life and Character</i>, album with 50 hand-colored photographs, 1871-72. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Wilson A. Bentley, album of 25 microphotographs from glass<br>plate negatives, 1888-1927.<br>$20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:<br>Art & Storytelling: Photographs<br>& Photobooks</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Hilla & Bernhard Becher, <i>Anonyme Skulpturen, Eine Typologie technischer Bauten</i>, first edition inscribed, Düsseldorf, 1970. $1,200 to $1,800.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Edward Ruscha, four seminal artist's books in original dust jackets.<br>$1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b> Typological set of more than 100 photographs of WWII fighter planes, 1942-45. $400 to $600.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Feb 25:</b><br>Roy DeCarava and Langston Hughes, <i>The Sweet Flypaper of Life</i>, first edition signed by authors, New York, 1955. $500 to $750.
  • <b>Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts, February 14th, 2016.</b>
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 9. HIERONYMUS. C.340-420. <i>Epistolae. WITH: Lupus de Oliveto. Regula Monachorum ...</i> US$ 20,000-30,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 47. FROST, A.B. 1858-1921. Shooting Pictures. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.<br>US$ 10,000-15,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 53. PICASSO, PABLO, RAOUL HAUSMANN, et al. ILIAZD, ed. Poesie de mots inconnus. 1949. US$ 8,000-12,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 64. BRIGGS, HENRY. 1561-1630. <i>The North Part of America</i>. [London: 1625]. Engraved by R. Elstracke. US$ 8,000-12,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 79. COPERNICUS, NICOLAUS. De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. 1566. US$ 80,000-120,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 80. DARWIN, CHARLES. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of ... US$ 70,000-90,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 87. NEWTON, ISAAC, SIR. Autograph Manuscript in Latin and English [n.p., early 1670s}. US$ 100,000-150,000
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 93. Dr. Kary Mullis' 1993 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to him for the invention of the Polymerase Chain Reaction. US$ 450,000-550,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 96.<br>CLEMENS, SAMUEL. Autograph Manuscript, nearly complete chapter 30 of <i>A Tramp Abroad</i>, c.1879.<br>US$ 20,000-30,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 105. GOLF. [MATHISON, THOMAS. d.1754.]<br><i>The Goff</i>. An Heroi-Comical Poem.<br>US$ 40,000-60,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 113. JOYCE, JAMES. 1882-1941. <i>Ulysses</i>. First Edition, Presentation Copy, Signed and Inscribed by Joyce on the half-title. US$ 40,000-60,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 120. LONDON, JACK. Autograph Manuscript of the short story "Flush of Gold". US$ 40,000-60,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 135. STEINBECK, JOHN. Autograph Manuscript of an unpublished short story. US$ 35,000-45,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 149. GERONIMO. BARRETT, S.M., ed. Geronimo's Story of His Life. 1906. US$ 12,000-18,000.
    <b>Bonhams Feb 14th:</b> Lot 165.<br>ENOLA GAY. LEWIS, ROBERT A. An official pilot's log, 1942 to 1946.<br>US$ 50,000-80,000.
  • <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b><br>Lot 14. Blaeu,<i>Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula</i>, 1635. Est. $14000-$16000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b><br>Lot 305. Arrowsmith, <i>Texas: The Rise, Progress, and Prospects of the Republic of Texas</i>, 1841. Est. $18000-$20000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b><br>Lot 256. Thackara, <i>Plan of the City<br>of Washington in the Territory of Columbia</i>, 1792. Est. $13000-$16000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 188. Browne/Senex, A New<br>Map of Virginia Mary-land, 1719. <br>Est. $5500-$6500
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 47. Cellarius, <i>Scenographia Systematis Copernicani</i>, 1708.<br>Est. $2400-$3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 6. Ortelius, <i>Typus Orbis Terrarum</i>, 1571. Est. $7000-$8500
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 413. De Medina, <i>Mundo Novo,</i> 1554. Est. $7000-$9000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 37. Jansson, <i>Histoire des Grands Chemins de l'Empire Romain</i>, 1736. Est. $3000-$3750
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 798. Le Rouge, <i>Atlas Nouveau Portatif a l'Usage des Militaires</i>, 1748. Est. $2400-$3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 60. Munster, <i>Tabula Novarum Insularum</i>, 1559. Est. $5500-$7000
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 3-17):</b> <br>Lot 122. Morden, <i>A New Map of the English Empire in America</i>, 1695. <br>Est. $14000-$16000
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    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> The Internet. (COMPUTERS.) CERF, VINTON & KAHN, ROBERT. <i>"A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication" in IEEE Transactions on Communications.</i>

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